Often translated as “the Marches,” this Central Italian region has it all. Pristine beaches and rugged shorelines hug the sapphire-blue Adriatic. Rolling hills lie covered with vines and olive groves. There are well-preserved medieval towns and cultural centers, wonderful cuisine and great wines.
Perched on a steep hilltop, Urbino, whose historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is Le Marche’s most celebrated city.
A cradle of the Renaissance, Urbino rivals even the most famous towns in Tuscany and Umbria for its grandiose architecture, rich history and impressive art collections.
Many of Urbino’s elaborate stone buildings were constructed in the mid- to late-1400s under the rule of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, one of the 15th century’s most dedicated patrons of the arts.
During his reign, Urbino was one of Europe’s greatest cultural centers. Visiting scholars, painters and poets would stay at Federico’s magnificent Palazzo Ducale, now home to Le Marche’s national art gallery.
Renaissance name-dropping here can bring art historians to their knees. Sandro Botticelli designed the intricate inlaid woodwork decorating the Duke’s private study. Among the masterpieces housed in the gallery are Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ as well as works by Raphael and Titian (known in Italy as Tiziano Vecellio).
But Urbino’s Renaissance connection goes deeper than one palazzo. Leonardo da Vinci planned the 15th-century reconstruction of the city’s original Roman walls. In 1483, Raphael was born here. Visitors to the artist’s home can see a fresco that he painted at age 14.
Urbino is just a short ride from Acqualagna, which shares the title of Italy’s white truffle capital with the town of Alba in Piedmont. Set inside Acqualagna’s Gola del Furlo Nature Reserve, Antico Furlo is celebrated for its truffle-based dishes and other locally sourced ingredients, including mushrooms from the nearby Apennines.
The local wine is the generally simple and quaffable Colli Pesaresi. Most common is a light, fruity red made predominantly from Sangiovese.
In Pesaro, Fattoria Mancini makes wines with greater elegance and depth, like its Colli Pesaresi Focara, a red made using Pinot Noir propagated from vines originally planted in the area during the Napoleonic administration in the early 1800s.
Mancini, whose spectacular vineyards overlook the Adriatic, also makes a Colli Pesaresi Roncaglia, a white blend of the native Albanella with Pinot Noir.
But, according to Alberto Melagrana, chef and owner of the Antico Furlo restaurant, the best wine to pair with the local white truffle dishes is Verdicchio.
“Contrary to popular belief, structured white wines pair better with truffles than reds,” he says. “A full-bodied 2 or 3-year old Verdicchio that’s been aged in casks and has good alcohol content is the best.”
Nestled between mountains and the sea, Jesi is home to one of Italy’s greatest white wines, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.
Though there are no vineyards in the city itself, Jesi is the ideal starting point to tour the surrounding wine country. It’s also not too far from the smaller Verdicchio di Matelica denomination.
“In the last few years, Verdicchio has received more awards and mentions from the Italian wine guides than any other white wine in Italy,” says Alberto Mazzoni, director of the Istituto Marchigiano di Tutela Vini, the region’s largest growers’ union.
During the 1960s, a cheap, cheerful version of Verdicchio was one of Italy’s best-selling white wines both domestically and in major export markets like the U.S.
But by the 1970s, quality nosedived as large firms churned out industrial quantities to satisfy demand.
Verdicchio’s newfound respect is the result of massive investments in the vineyards and improved winemaking.
“In 1983, when I began bottling my production, I cut yields down to half of what the production code stipulates,” says Ampelio Bucci, one of the leaders of Verdicchio’s renaissance. “And instead of planting new vines or international grapes, I decided to work with old Verdicchio vines.”
Aged in large Slavonian casks, Bucci’s full-bodied, complex and mineral-driven wines, especially his Riserva, soon caught the attention of wine critics and connoisseurs worldwide.
Encouraged, other producers started focusing on quality over quantity. These days, Verdicchio quality has never been better.
Besides acting as the gateway to Verdicchio, Jesi’s maze of cobbled streets and ancient buildings are worth a visit. Leave the industrial sprawl below and go directly to the walled medieval center, the birthplace of Frederick II, one of the Middle Age’s most powerful Holy Roman Emperors.
The Palazzo Pianetti is a must see, noted for its rich collection of artwork, including those by 16th-century artist Lorenzo Lotto. Jesi also hosts the Enoteca Regionale, which carries more than 400 Marche labels, making it an ideal introduction to the region’s dynamic wine scene.
Just a short drive away in the seaside town of Senigallia is Uliassi, recipient of two Michelin stars. Chef Mauro Uliassi serves creative interpretations of local seafood specialties like smoked spaghetti with clams and grilled cherry tomatoes.
One of Italy’s premier white wines, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi features peach and almond flavors brightened by crisp acidity. Riservas, aged longer prior to release, offer moderate cellaring potential, up to several years. Top estates include Villa Bucci, Umani Ronchi and Garofoli.
In the Verdicchio di Matelica region, higher altitudes and a closed valley create a cooler microclimate than in the Jesi denomination, yielding wines with intense aromas, brisk acidity and marked mineral accents. Collestefano is one of the area’s rising stars.
Le Marche’s most beautiful beaches are situated inside the stunning Conero Natural Park. Even though these seaside resorts draw crowds in July and August, you’ll have the beaches pretty much to yourself in May, June and September. Some of the more isolated and hard-to-reach beaches are never crowded, even during peak season.
One of the most seductive spots along this strip of the Adriatic coast is Portonovo, once a simple fishing village. Located at the foot of Monte Conero, Portonovo’s white pebbly beaches, rocky shorelines and luminous green bay are set against a backdrop of the park’s woods and dense Mediterranean brush.
Just between the beach and park are two small salt lakes that attract rare birds and other species that thrive in the pristine reserve. After soaking up the sunshine and swimming in the crystal clear waters, take a short walk to the ancient church of Santa Maria di Portonovo.
Surrounded by old, twisted olive trees, the church overlooks the bay. Built by Benedictine monks in the 11th century, the perfectly preserved structure is a jewel of Romanesque architecture.
For a delicious meal on the beach, try Clandestino, a sushi bar and casual restaurant that’s operated by star chef Moreno Cedroni. His main restaurant in Senigallia has received two Michelin stars.
Mezzavalle and Le Due Sorelle are two nearby destinations. From Portonovo, Mezzavalle is a 15-minute walk along a steep, rugged footpath, making it a haven for sea lovers and hikers looking for unspoiled beaches. Another wild, pristine beach, Le Due Sorelle is accessible only by boat.
Heading away from the shore, Monte Conero offers numerous walking and mountain bike paths of varying levels of difficulty, offering stunning views of the sparkling sea below.
Monte Conero is home to Rosso Conero, a robust red wine that must be made from a minimum of 85% Montepulciano and a maximum of 15% Sangiovese. Most producers use exclusively Montepulciano.
With its fruity sensations of black cherries and raspberries, Rosso Conero is usually best enjoyed in its youth, especially if it hasn’t been aged in wood.
More structured wines from the Conero Riserva DOCG are usually best after four or five years.
Two producers to seek out are Moroder and Fattoria Le Terrazze.
In the south of Le Marche, near the region’s border with Abruzzo, Ascoli Piceno is one of Italy’s little-known jewels.
The striking city center is made entirely of travertine, an ivory-colored stone that’s been used here since Roman times, first to construct dwellings and temples, and later, churches, palaces and municipal buildings.
Even the pavement tiles in the city’s main square, the Piazza del Popolo, are made of travertine. Any visit to Ascoli Piceno should begin here, at the beating heart of the city.
Flanked by the imposing gothic Church of San Francesco, the 13th-century Captain’s Palace and the 16th-century vaulted Merchant’s Lodge, the piazza seems to glow when the light hits a certain way.
Many residents still walk in the square each evening to catch up with neighbors and friends, a custom now abandoned in most Italian cities.
Stop in at Caffè Meletti, located in one corner of the square, for pastry and an espresso in the morning or an aperitivo in the evening. Its Liberty-style architecture is a nod to Old World refinement and charm.
The recently reopened restaurant on the top floor serves delicious, creative interpretations of traditional cuisine, including olive all’Ascolana—fried olives stuffed with a mixture of meat, Parmesan cheese, vegetables and herbs.
This delicacy is made with the Tenera Ascolana olive variety, which, as the name suggests, are tender and fleshy. The local olive oils are among the best in Italy.
Walking is the best way to visit the city and take in the numerous Romanesque churches and medieval towers. In Piazza Arringo, stop at the Cathedral of Saint Emidio, named after the city’s patron saint and, according to local legend, protector against earthquakes. Inside, marvel at the intricately frescoed ceilings and vaulted crypt.
Outside of the town center, visit the Malatesta Fortress and the Cecco Bridge, as well as the temple of Sant’Emidio alle Grotte, built into the hillside.
Ascoli Piceno is in the Rosso Piceno denomination, which spans 120 towns in four provinces. Given the vast territory and the flexible blending regulations (varying amounts of Montepulciano, Sangiovese and other varieties), this red wine generally lacks identity and also has variable quality levels.
One of the estates making good Rosso Piceno is Le Caniette. Rosso Piceno Superiore hails only from the Ascoli province, which local producers maintain has the best growing conditions.
Yet, the most interesting wines from the undulating hills around Ascoli Piceno are white, especially the small production of Offida Pecorino DOCG.
Nearly extinct in the early 1980s, the Pecorino grape was saved by local winemaker Guido Cocci Grifoni, who, after years of experimentation, made his first vintage of 100% Pecorino in 1990.
Because of its intense floral aromas of acacia and jasmine, rich white-fruit flavors, creamy texture and mineral notes, more wineries are now producing this fascinating wine, which pairs well with fish and white meats.
Top estates include Cocci Grifoni and Ciù Ciù.